Hurricane Irene: Did New York over-react?

 
Brooklyn Bridge, as Irene stormed

New Yorkers did not always start panic-buying before a category one storm. Is this new phenomenon connected with the way the media increasingly pervade and govern our lives?

The first thing I did on Monday, even before drinking coffee, was go online to check the news. I had to know how things were going in the city of my birth.

When I had gone to bed Saturday night, New York had shut down as Hurricane Irene approached, parts of it had been evacuated, the subway closed. There was panic buying in the supermarkets.

Start Quote

The headlines today make it clear - people lost their lives, property was damaged, a million homes were left without power”

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I found that the New York Times had helpfully put a box on its home page listing the weather conditions in Central Park and out at the airports. The wind was blowing... wait for it... at 16mph in the park, 43mph at Kennedy airport.

Forty-three miles per hour? That's a breezy day in Britain. That's the kind of wind speed we like to go for a walk in after lunch on Boxing Day. Throw in a few needles of rain and it's mother nature's own cure for Christmas period over-indulgence.

Not for the first time I wondered aloud about the kind of group hysteria that more and more often seems to sweep parts of my native land from top to toe. From politicians and television "news" people, to ordinary folks who should know better.

Gloria

The storm was just category one when New York shut down. Yet panic seemed to be everywhere!

Long Beach Park, woman walking Weather happens, and very rarely to a manmade timetable

I posted on Facebook a terse, slightly vulgar message to my East Coast friends, which ended - "My Rule of thumb: category one, wear a rain coat... Don't panic buy until it gets to category four."

Not everyone saw the humour in my comments, particularly those who live in Vermont or New Jersey, the places that bore the brunt of the rain. It was mostly my older male friends who got my joke. Maybe it's a function of age. We've seen it all before and aren't going to get too worried about a little ol' cat one thing.

A few weeks before I left New York for London in 1985, Hurricane Gloria hit town. There was a similar chorus of doom in the press, although not as much general hysteria. I remember going for a walk around my East Village block as the eye passed near by, misquoting King Lear's mad scene on the heath:

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes ... "

I love that "hurricanoes". Kept shouting the word over and over into the wind.

Anyway, an old buddy of mine from acting days in New York wisely gave up the theatre and moved to a small island off the coast of South Carolina (not so wise, perhaps) and got into sustainable farming.

Comet Kohoutek

  • First sighted in March 1973 by Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek
  • In December 1973, it was visible to the naked eye - but failed to live up to its billing in the media as "the comet of the century"
  • The founder of the Children of God movement, David Berg, saw Kohoutek as a signal of a doomsday event, that would hit the US in January 1974 - this also failed to materialise

As the storm approached he messaged that he was certain it wouldn't hit his island because he had just bought a generator. After it had passed without much ado he compared it to the furore surrounding Comet Kohoutek.

Age also teaches us that weather happens... very rarely to a man-made timetable and, as Irene demonstrated, where mankind expects it to be. The worst storm I've ever lived through was the notorious wind that blew at 134mph across southern England in 1987. Famously, BBC weatherman Michael Fish did not predict it.

Bigging up

This isn't to ignore Irene's destructiveness or her size. The headlines and dramatic photos make it clear, people lost their lives, property was damaged, a million homes were left without power.

But the destruction that took place in Philadelphia, north Jersey and Vermont notwithstanding, there was an over-reaction in advance of the event.

A perfect feedback loop was created between politicians, news media, and a general public whose behaviour is increasingly sculpted by the news media. I think there are several reasons for this.

Hurricane Irene seen from space Irene (top right) over New England

First, the lingering political aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the rare weather events that did unfold as expected. There was every reason to expect it would it be dreadful, yet so little was done to effectively prepare for it. Now politicians don't want to be behind the curve on a major disaster, so they get far out in front of it. They act as if the worst will happen, when it rarely does.

Second, people like to be frightened. That's why any decent-grossing horror movie can be turned into a franchise. Nightmare on Elm Street, 29, Scare Me Again, Freddie. Local television news has long been a source of scaremongering in America. Bigging up a category one storm into the next Katrina is good for ratings.

I think there is a third reason. American society has finally become "media-tised". By that I mean many people (by no means all) find it hard to consider something real unless they encounter it via media: TV, computer, whatever. Experience is secondary.

You may have lived through a dozen category one hurricanes in your life and know precisely what precautions to take - do we have candles in the house and c-size batteries for the flash lights in case the power goes off? Should we get those boxes of books off the basement floor in case it floods again?

Amusing Ourselves to Death

  • Published in 1985 by media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003)
  • It argues that television as a medium is the enemy of rational argument, because viewers are only passively involved
  • Postman classes television news as a form of entertainment
  • In the TV age, he says, politics becomes less about ideas than about image and presentation

Instead, you race down to Costco or the local supermarket and join the general panic. Cancel a week's worth of business meetings. Even though your experience tells you there will be heavy rain and not much more.

Anyway, a better place to follow my idea about media-tisation is in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, published back in 1985. It is a visionary work, and if Postman had lived long enough my guess is he would have written a sequel called Frightening Ourselves to Death.

Today, my end of the Facebook counter-reality is alive with jokes: "Whooooooo-eee! That was close!" and, YouTube footage of flooding and streakers running buck nekkid through the rain. Truly, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

Michael Goldfarb is a former London bureau chief for National Public Radio. He now writes from London for Globalpost and is a regular contributor to Dateline London on the BBC News Channel and BBC World News. He worked (and occasionally got paid) as an actor in New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

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  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 59.

    I live in NY and must say that the only people I saw panicking were media types desperate for a story angle on a quasi non-story. New Yorkers just casually went about buying a bit more food so they wouldn't have to go out in the rain the next day - as everyone would. As for the evacuations of the lowlying areas, frankly it made sense to do so. The authorities did what they had to do, that's it.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 46.

    You have forgotten the most likely explanation - there is nothing a man likes more than preparing for an emergency. Having an opportunity to crack out my wind up torch (batteries are too unreliable), bulk purchase between 12 and 20 gallons of water, set out my handy survival kit (spare clothes, blankets, waterproofs, first aid gear) and hide underneath the stairs is a fun way to spend a weekend.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 36.

    This writer seems to have no knowledge of what counts as proper risk assessment or sensible preparation.

    So Irene was a Category 1 when it hit NY? Well, it was a Category 3 at the time evasive action had to be taken, and at that stage a storm surge in the range of 10-15 feet was distinctly possible. A Katrina-sized body count was then a real possibility. Action was rightly taken to prevent it.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 33.

    My wife and I drove into the Target in Rego Park (Queens) at 11am on Saturday to pick the obligatory gallons of water and were somewhat surprised to get a parking spot right next to the front door. Considering the place was closing at 12, there was absolutely no evidence of panic. As Bloomberg said (REPEATEDLY), better to prepare for the worst and receive the best. I'm ok with that.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 32.

    I don't think think any NYC'ers were panicking, nothing like they do in Godzilla the movie, or the day after tomorrow. The media on the other hand lost all sense of reality, on both sides of the Atlantic. It was completely ridiculous.

 

Comments 5 of 13

 

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